The Corner

Film & TV

World War I Films in Review

Sam Mendes, director of “1917,” attends the 72nd Annual DGA Awards in Los Angeles, CA. January 25, 2020 (Mario Anzuoni/Reuters)

The day before the 92nd Academy Awards, I finally got around to seeing Sam Mendes’s World War I drama 1917. The film, nominated for ten Oscars, follows two soldiers as they head through the front lines of conflict to deliver an urgent message. And here, I mean “follows” literally; the film uses long takes to make it all appear as one shot, with no transitions, cuts, or anything of the sort (with one jarring exception). Thus, the camera often seemingly stalks its two main characters, from behind, to the side, or just ahead. It was an impressive technical achievement, one I predicted would at least merit it the Academy Award for Best Cinematography — especially when 1917’s credits revealed to me that frequent Oscar nominee and supremely talented cinematographer Roger Deakins was involved. I was correct. (It also picked up wins for Best Visual Effects and Best Sound Mixing.)

My awards prognostication did not extend any further than that, however, for one reason: I was not very moved by the film, beyond being technically impressed by it. Many reviewers made the case for the immersive quality of its central technique. But the main effect it had on me was distraction. Much of the film seemed to me like it was built around a desire to show off this method of filming, rather than considering how best to tell the story.

I am not — or at least, I try not to be — the sort of moviegoer who views his own film tastes as edicts handed down from on high, however. Thus, I am open to the idea that I am “wrong” even about something as subjective as my own taste. A film as well-received as 1917 reinforced such doubts in me, and I spent some time after being somewhat underwhelmed by the film wondering why it did not have the same effect on me that it has had on many others. Why did 1917’s impressive camerawork not create for me the same lived-in immersion that its fans experienced?

Subsequent reflection has provided an answer. Another World War I film, also in theaters in 2019 but nominated for no Oscars either for that calendar year or the year before, did a much better job at conveying to me the lived experience of World War I than did 1917: Peter Jackson’s documentary They Shall Not Grow Old. Pieced together from hundreds of hours of restored, colorized footage from the first World War, and narrated by audio interviews of Commonwealth Great War veterans after the fact, They Shall Not Grow Old provides an honest, strikingly real depiction of that conflict. Jackson and his team also went to great lengths to add sound to footage of life in the war, combining a study of history with lipreading to figure out not only what soldiers were saying in the footage, but what they would have sounded like (based on the uniforms they were wearing, which differed by location), among other efforts. It was done so seamlessly that I was wondering throughout how they could have possibly captured audio on century-old footage. I went on at greater length about the greatness and immersive quality of They Shall Not Grow Old at Ricochet last year, in a post-Oscars lament that it would likely fail to get any Academy recognition.

Some might contest the idea that there could only be room in my heart for one depiction of the brutal reality of World War I. And yes, maybe it is an arbitrary claim to make. But I am much more comfortable proclaiming the superiority of They Shall Not Grow Old in its ability to depict what that war was actually like. Even some of its technical achievements, while not as sexy as the single-take film (though this itself is not quite an unprecedented feat), are certainly worthy of note. Either way, it is heartening that the movie industry remains interested in making movies about a war that now lacks any living combatants.

Jack Butler is an associate editor at National Review Online.

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